With almost no help from anyone in Hollywood, Benny and Josh Safdie have made a handful of features, shorts, and docs that have gotten them noticed by the very people they were happy to work without. I first got wind of their brand of hybrid films (mixing actors and non-actors in both imagined and very real moments) when I read Roger Ebert’s review of their 2009 work DADDY LONGLEGS. A few years later came the unusual sports documentary LENNY COOKE and the highly touted look at addict culture, 2014’s HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, starring a young woman plucked right out of heroin addiction and dropped into a story that was partly inspired by her life.
It was a single image from HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT that compelled actor Robert Pattinson to contact the Safdies in the hopes of working on something together, and although they had their next project lined up—the New York Diamond District movie currently called UNCUT GEMS, set to star Jonah Hill—they set that aside to strike while the iron was hot and Pattinson was available, and they pulled together a series of moments about low-level criminals that became GOOD TIME, which has been getting astonishing reviews since its premiere at Cannes. Pattinson has never been better (and I say that fully believing that he keeps getting better since the TWILIGHT films wrapped up) as Connie, a criminal whose also something of an antihero as he roams the dirty streets of New York at night trying to scrounge up money to get his brother Nick (played by Benny Safdie) out of jail for taking part in a bank robbery that Connie set up.
The film plays like a scumbag’s version of “The Odyssey,” with Pattinson moving from surreal moment to nightmarish reality. It’s fantastic stuff, and I got the chance to sit down with the brothers in Chicago recently to talk about the film and their creative process. They are two truly remarkable and talented filmmakers, and I can’t wait to see what they have lined up for the next several decades. Please enjoy my talk with Josh and Benny Safdie…
Capone: Josh, you were the one that told the story yesterday about just how Pattinson found you via a still from HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. Did he ever tell you what it was about that still that drew him to you?
JS: He saw the still, and then saw the movie, obviously. We got him a private screener.
Capone: But, after he sent the email saying he wanted to work with you?
JS: Yes, after. In hindsight, we've since talked about it. He thought that the energy of the still, and remember it's just a still of Arielle Holmes looking off screen, covered in pink neon.
Capone: I know the exact image, sure.
JS: He said that it somehow, in one still, is was able to capture a nuance and an energy that he had never seen in one image before. Also, the casting decision, because when I first saw Arielle on the street, I think he was drawn to the image the same way I was drawn to Arielle. She was just so uniquely beautiful. It’s great when you can see someone redefine what beautiful can be, and she was that. I think that he just saw this confluence of casting, energy, cinematography, and lighting in one image, and he was just like, "I want to be a part of whatever that is. Whatever I'm feeling in this image, I want to be a part of it."
Capone: Were you at all hesitant to get involved with an actor that had a certain amount of baggage?
JS: To be completely honest, I had only seen him in one movie at the time, and it was THE ROVER.
Capone: That's a good one.
JS: Yeah. But I had known that he was—because I had missed the whole TWILIGHT thing—this international mega-star, that he was all over the tabloids. One time, I walked by a huge crowd, and I was like, “Why are you guys here?” They're like, "Robert Pattinson's in that building," but that was like years before I met him. Were we worried about it? No, I mean…
Benny Safdie: The only hesitation we had was the fact that he wasn't right for the movie we wanted to make at the time. So it was like, "Do we contact him? What are we going to do?" We didn't have anything.
JS: Because we knew that whatever we wanted to make after HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT was going to be something heavily genre oriented. The Diamond District film is a genre movie; it's more of a comedic thriller. We wanted to do something in the genre world, something that had a grandness to it, and we knew that with a star of that stature, with just him, we could just do whatever we want with complete freedom with the rest of the cast, and we would have a certain budget that would allow us to basically have these dream scenarios. We can do action sequences. We could do a chase sequence. We could do a car crash.
BS: Shoot at Adventureland.
JS: We could shoot at Adventureland.
Capone: I gotta say, having just seen him in THE LOST CITY OF Z a couple months ago, he's doing the best work he's ever done right now.
JS: He's amazing in LOST CITY OF Z. I wish his character was bigger.
Capone: But I think he kind of liked it because it was a smaller character, almost unrecognizable.
JS: Yes, yes. Well, that was his initial reach out, his initial olive branch, was he was looking to be a supporting player. Right now, after COSMOPOLIS, I think he was really interested in disappearing into movies and being the supporting characters, but see him as a leading man. I think that he's a star in that way, and that things should revolve around him. I made that very clear to him when we started working together.
Capone: Let me ask you about the opening scene. Much like writing the perfect first line in a book pulls you in, that scene is that line in the book. You have no idea what's going on, and there’s that tight closeup on your face—too close.
BS: He doesn't want you inside.
Capone: Talk about developing that moment. How early in the process did you come up with that, because you could have written that without even having Robert be a part of it.
JS: Yeah. I'll let Benny speak about where that scene really started, but in the writing process, we always knew we wanted to introduce Connie in way that you would meet someone like Connie, that he just gets involved in your life and now you're like, "Whoa, now I'm in this guy's life." In a weird way, it's almost like a meta thing, we're making this movie that is very much like a movie we would have made before—small, almost [documentarian Frederick] Wiseman-like movie about institutional mental illness, mental disability, and then this movie star comes in and grabs us, and we get involved again and embark on a genre film.
Capone: He's Bruce Willis coming in to rescue someone.
JS: Well, yeah. And opening on that helicopter shot, and then immediately cutting in.
BS: Oh, yeah. The helicopter mixed with that idea of like, “Okay we're immediately collapsing character and genre, right from the beginning.” You have this helicopter shot into a super-tight closeup of somebody who's very complicated. Just to speak to that first scene, it was actually in 2010 with Ronald Bronstein, who Josh write the film with, I was going to act in a movie that he was making, and we were creating this character together. We built up this backstory, I developed this way of talking, and he just asked me to mine my own self, my insecurities, or if I exaggerate certain aspects of my personality, and we came up with this character. His name was Jordan.
Anyway, we did a bunch of tests and rehearsals, and one of them was, okay, you're going in. It was just a freeform, I think it was like almost an hour long, where I went in and I took this test, where it was a mental status exam. Somebody just gave me the test and I would answer the questions. It was a very long process, and it was very complicated for me, because I went in with the mindset of “I'm going to go and get money for my grandmother. That's the only reason I'm going here.” In 2010, I was 150 pounds. I was younger, but that existed as a place where we could start from, and so he took that backstory from some of these rehearsals and put them into the script with Josh and wove it in.
Then when we updated it to “What happens after seven years of this character not being taken care of in the way that he should have”” He hardens, his problems get exacerbated. His disability becomes even more difficult to control because he's now stronger, people are afraid of him. When he gets to that scene, there's a guy who's trying to understand him, trying to get him to talk about his feelings, and he doesn't want to talk about anything, so he really has to keep prodding and prodding. That's why it's so hard, because he doesn't want to let you in.
And that moment where he cries, what’s happening there is he's feeling all these emotions, and then I'm cutting them off, because he doesn't understand what they are. He just knows that there's a feeling there, Nick. Nick knows this is strange. Something's vibrating, but it's hitting a wall, so all these emotions are hitting a wall, and eventually it just collapses where he cries, but it's not because of any one, specific thing. It's just because he's uncomfortable, and his brain is understanding things that his body might not.
Capone: I love that idea that he never seems comfortable anywhere but with Connie. He's just always out of place. That bank robbery…I’ve seen films where dye packs explode. I've never seen it happen in a car, with that amazing door opening sequence and the smoke just flying. It's like a war movie. How do you even do that and not suffocate your actors in a car?
BS: It's funny you say that. Literally, when we got into the car, it was like, "Okay, count to 10, hold your breath."
JS: Well, when the dye pack goes out, it was a thing that we were testing all these different techniques on, and we ended up landing on Holi Powder, and basically a Shop Vac. When we did our test to see the insert of the bag, we realized that sometimes some things feel more realistic than if you actually show what they look like. We looked at a lot of videos of what happens in dye pack situations. Yeah, they're really just like a little “peep,” like a little poof and then like a little firecracker noise, and then smoke starts seeping out. We thought it would be more interesting if this thing goes off and it actually inflates the bag. It feels more real.
BS: It feels like how the characters are feeling that moment. This thing goes off, and it just is raising.
JS: We actually shot in a moving car with Rob and Benny and our camera man, and our stunt driver. Our stunt driver was encased, so he could actually see the road, so it wouldn't affect him, and it fills up the entire car, and he just continues. We had two cameras, so we had to, basically after that shot, send camera A in to be cleaned, so that we can be ready, because it was just caked in this pink shit.
BS: Then we wanted that door opening.
JS: We wanted that war feeling.
BS: That door opening, when it opened, smoke just needed to be spilling out.
Capone: Is it in slow motion? It feels like it is.
BS: No, no.
JS: Our DP had this idea: "I want to shoot it handheld, and I want to have this thing where I run up on the car."
BS: Yeah. Like a crash.
JS: Like a bystander saw it like, "Oh my God, what happened?" He runs up on the car and then the door opens.
BS: It has that energy, right?
JS: It's interesting that it plays out like slow motion for you.
BS: It's also the music. There are certain cues on the door when he opens it, so it's like “Ooww!” when the door opens, and the smoke is so thick because it had been collecting in the car before we get in, and then when we get in, hold our breath, and then just wait until we heard “Action.” Then it was just like, okay, Rob gets up, and then I wait. Literally, I'm waiting for Rob to come save me in that scene.
Capone: Connie is an interesting person. I think last night you refer to him as a scumbag, but he's also the hero. He's also the guy we're weirdly rooting for. You make a distinction between a “criminal” and a “bad guy” here. He's a criminal; it’s second nature to lie to people, to con them, to take what he needs when he needs it.
BS: That's an interesting distinction.
JS: I had the super-juvenile version of this as friends, as kids, and as a teenager, I met this guy who disappeared. I think he went to jail or something, but I was close with him for a little bit. [Actor] Buddy Duress is a good friend. I think he's different from the Ray character. He's less hard. He wanted Ray to be like the most hardened version of him. He's been in and out of prisons or reform situations since he was 16, and really messed up situations too, where he sees the cold brutality of penal society. He's seen it and he knows what these characters are.
His prison journals, which I had him keep, which had nothing to do with any project. It was just to help him pass time, but then they ended up becoming very informative of how Connie came to be. There is this element of Connie that feels born again, and his intentions, his idea of what he wants to do with his life are actually good natured. He wants to just disappear and live independently and free with his brother, but the reality of that is harsh and ugly because he actually doesn't have any of the tools to make that happen or make that real.
BS: I think the moment where you really see that he's a criminal and not a bad guy in some ways... He's a bad guy in other ways.
Capone: Yeah. He does some horrible shit in this movie, too.
BS: It's that moment when Crystal is getting taken away by the cops, and he's like, "There wasn't a girl," so he doesn't throw her away, but he is letting her get caught. There's that cutback, where there's a look back and forth, back and forth in the edit, and that's where he's like, "I don't want to do this, but I have to do it." You realize that he's just taking advantage of the situation.
JS: It's also her knowing like, "I'm not going to snitch on you right now, but you’re a piece of shit.”
BS: “This is messed up.”
JS: “I kind of liked you.” I think he really saw something in Crystal. I think he related to her. He saw a person who just wanted to break free of an oppressing life. In that moment, if she just stayed in the car, he's basically thinking…he’s not telling the cops. The only reason he tells the cops there were other people walking around the park somewhere is because that clearly a phone call had been put out saying that there were two people.
BS: They ask him, ”Where's the other guy?"
JS: He's like “Aw, shit.” He didn't think about that. He's like, "I don't know. Maybe he's in the park?” Not thinking that they would find anyone. So that moment is actually weirdly one of the softest, between that and the brothers, those are the only soft moments you see of him, and then he just has this look saying like "I'm sorry" with his eyes.
Capone: Never for a second, did I think he was going to do something to get her out of that situation.
JS: But what could he possibly say, except for what he does?
Capone: Or give himself up, which was never going to happen.
JS: Exactly. That's very important that you’re in his point of view, you're like hitched to him at his speed.
Capone: The whole Adventureland sequence is so surreal to begin with, but the fact that the cops show up and immediately think they know the situation based on there being a white guy in a security guard uniform, and black guy who isn’t. “He must be the criminal.”
JS: “We've seen this before.” Yeah, it's playing into racial profiling. It's too real. It's a moment where an audience member might be like, "Wait a second. Why did I just go with that, too?" This is messed up. Society is a messed up place.
BS: You take one look at Connie and you're like "That guy's a sleazy looking guy.” But the cops are looking at something beyond that. It's just crazy.
JS: One of the reasons why our penal system does not work is that it’s not a rehabilitating one, because the system, the actual experience of doing time, it's pandemonium and where it's just a mini version of major oppression, and what ends up happening is all the races and everybody get pitted against one another in prison. In a weird way, Connie saw that. He didn't like it. That's why when Ray asked him "Have you ever done time before?”, he's disgusted that he's done time. He's not proud of it. For a lot of people, doing time has become like a weird point of pride, and he's not proud of it, and he saw the true colors of society while he was locked up.
Capone: Now that you've sort of been through the process with Rob, what did he bring to this whole thing that you've never really experience before? What did he teach you?
JS: He taught us basic that with a veteran performer—at this point he's been acting in films for over a decade, big, big stuff too, obviously—there’s a certain level of things that we could lean on, in terms of a professionalism with his blocking. A certain actor knows how to find their light, and our lighting in this movie was very slight and subtle, so when there's a one-slash light, he knows exactly how to turn into it because he knew. That was something that I saw and I was like, okay, that's something you can depend on. With a first timer, you're literally just trying to catch them doing these things.
BS: He also would say things almost exactly the same, and certain ways that he would speak, he would say it the same way every time, so that you'd be able to just like use the audio from other takes. What I also realized is that, being in the mind of an editor also while we're making the movie, I could see that he let his performance just be wild, in the sense that “I'm going to give you as many possible options for a specific thing, emotionally, and then you could edit it.” He knew. He’s very aware of the editing process that you're going to be doing when you're going through it, so that was interesting to see too, to see him acting for movies.
JS: He also gave me faith. I've always had faith in my dialog, because I pride myself on the dialog we write, but we've always been so gung-ho to throw it out the window with basically just a major scratch track. A lot of times with first timers, the script is daunting to them, and they feel the need to try to memorize things beat for beat, but he was really obsessed with the dialog and the beat for beat, so he said them, and it was a new thing for us. Same thing with Jennifer [Jason Leigh].
BS: Jennifer was pretty free also.
JS: Yeah, of course. Because she could say the lines. That was a really interesting thing to see as a writer to basically be like “We can basically lean on the dialog if we have to. I mean, we're still open to case-by-case scenarios.”
BS: That one scene with Ray in the security guard's house, that was a perfect example of that where we were letting Buddy go free and say what he felt, and Rob was going to say his lines with the exact conviction as it was written, and that was going to be an anchor. We were going to be able to play off of each other in that way.
Capone: Guys, thank you so much. It was really great to finally meet you. Best of luck with this.